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Book Review: Looker by Laura Sims

Laura Sims’ debut novel, Looker, and her narrator, the Professor, may look slight but it’d be wrong to underestimate their impact. Both are pretty intense and equally capable of causing a stir.

The Professor lives in Brooklyn; her partner Nathan left her when she couldn’t have a baby. All she has now is her dead-end teaching job, her ramshackle apartment, and Nathan’s old moggy, Cat. Who she doesn’t even like.

The Actress lives a few doors down. She’s famous and beautiful, with auburn hair, perfect skin, a lovely smile. She’s got children – a baby, even. And a husband who seems to adore her. She leaves her windows open, even at night.

There’s no harm, the Professor thinks, in looking in through the illuminated glass at that shiny, happy family, fantasising about them, drawing ever closer to the actress herself. Or is there?

I could be wrong but in the same way we never have a name for the Actress, I don’t think we ever know the narrator’s name beyond people calling her Professor or addressing her as Professor T. I think this works well in that it designates them their roles: the one being watched and scrutinised with the other observing and making a study of her. By anonymising them, they could be any one of us in similar circumstances.

The Professor describes the actress’s life and career so well that we can build up a picture of it. It would be tricky to use the name, life and career of a real actress here anyway, not least because we would impose our own knowledge of and feelings about her which would get in the way of the Professor’s own, and those are what matter here. By only knowing the Actress by her job title it suggests that, though she might not realise it, she’s playing a role in the Professor’s life. It’s goes beyond a walk-on part, too, as she takes on increasing importance to the Professor.

Only knowing the narrator as the Professor not only defines the part she plays in the story, but also tells us her status in the workplace and that she has an academic background. It makes what happens over the course of the novel all the more shocking; to see someone with the Professor’s intellect fixate on another’s life in the way she does and see the unhealthy lengths to which she will go in pursuit of that is extremely troubling and unnerving. It’s frightening how removed she is from any support network.

What makes Looker so compelling is Laura Sims’ use of the first person narrative to tell this story of one woman locking onto another. It puts us in the Professor’s head: we follow her thoughts and reasoning and, being party to her logic makes it all too easy not to realise until it’s too late, how bizarre and erratic her behaviour is becoming. This is a woman unravelling and spiralling out of control and we’re in her head for the entire uncomfortable duration. It’s incredibly creepy and brilliantly executed.

Looker by Laura Sims is published by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline. It’s out today and is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. Looker is Laura Sims’ debut novel. For more information, check out her Author Website, or you can find her on Facebook, on Instagram, or on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher for my review copy which I received through a Twitter giveaway.

Book Review: Something to Live For by Richard Roper #FindYourSomething

Richard Roper’s debut novel, Something to Live For, is a surprisingly endearing, funny and moving story about loneliness and the people who fall through the cracks in their own lives.

Sometimes you have to risk everything to find your something…

All Andrew wants is to be normal. He has the perfect wife and 2.4 children waiting at home for him after a long day. At least, that’s what he’s told people.

The truth is, his life isn’t exactly as people think and his little white lie is about to catch up with him.

Because in all Andrew’s efforts to fit in, he’s forgotten one important thing: how to really live. And maybe, it’s about time for him to start.

Richard Roper’s main character has an unusual job, one which most of us would consider to be something of a thankless task, that is, if we gave it any thought at all or even knew of its existence. Andrew chooses to go beyond what’s required under his job description and, in his own small way, lends some dignity and humanity to the lives of people he doesn’t know and who will never know what he does for them. I found this incredibly touching and warmed to him almost immediately for the kindness he shows these strangers.

Richard Roper writes them with sensitivity and humour, especially when Peggy arrives on the scene, but I still found some of the description of living conditions, not least Andrew’s own, difficult to read. It saddened me to think of people coming to exist in this way.

Peggy. Oh, how I loved and adored the character of Peggy. Even when she is facing her own challenges and dealing with what life throws at her, she still has time to listen and be there for others. She is a kind, beautiful soul who manages to find the joy and humour in everyday life. I hope everyone knows one. We all need a Peggy in our lives. And if you don’t know one, perhaps you can try and be someone else’s Peggy? Read more

Book Review: The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby

Charlotte Philby found the inspiration behind her debut novel in a question that arose from her grandfather’s notorious defection to Russia in 1963: what kind of person walks out on their family?

On the surface, Anna Witherall personifies everything the aspirational magazine she works for represents. Married to her university boyfriend David, she has a beautiful home and gorgeous three-year-old twin daughters, Stella and Rose. But beneath the veneer of success and happiness, Anna is hiding a dark secret, one that threatens to unravel everything she has worked so hard to create.

As Anna finds herself drawn into the dark and highly controlled world of secret intelligence, she is forced to question her family’s safety, and her own. Only one thing is certain: in order to protect her children, she must leave them, forever. 

And someone is watching. Someone she thought she could trust. Someone who is determined to make them all pay.

Charlotte Philby recruits a young woman as her spy in The Most Difficult Thing, exploring the relationships she has, how the lines blur between what is real and what might be role-play, or even manipulative behaviour, on someone else’s part. When that woman becomes a mother, she examines whether maternal instincts automatically kick in, especially where childbirth and the postpartum period aren’t easy. She also considers the decision to break ties and whether it’s any more difficult for a mother to leave her children than it is for a father to walk out on his family.

The actual business interests that form the subject of the espionage were a little sketchy and confusing at times but this didn’t bother me too much because I found them to be of secondary interest to the web of relationships around Anna, who is at the heart of the novel.

This is where The Most Difficult Thing works particularly well and comes into its own. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to untangle all the relationships and work out who was playing it straight, who was not to be trusted or potentially spying on someone else or possibly even playing a double game, who might be paranoid or controlling, or who might simply be concerned for the children of the house and/or someone else’s welfare.

It’s difficult to work out if or how far Anna goes native, to what extent she makes conscious decisions affecting her life, and how much she remembers she has been recruited for a specific purpose. It’s also hard to gauge how much others suspect or know what she’s doing, who for and why. It was satisfying to see how it all unravels by the end. The Most Difficult Thing is an edgy family drama with its tangle of relationships unspooling in a clammy climate of deception and mistrust.

The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby is published by The Borough Press, a Harper Collins imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback, with the paperback due out next year. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. For more information on Charlotte Philby and her work, visit her Author Website or you can find her on Twitter.  

My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Book Review: The House of Hardie by Anne Melville

The House of Hardie is the first book in a series by Anne Melville and tells the story of two sets of siblings from different classes, who meet in Oxford and whose lives quickly become entangled.

Midge and Gordon Hardie have grown up as the children of a wine merchant. But their lot in life, to inherit The House of Hardie, is not what they have in mind. Midge wants more than her mundane life – she craves intrigue and luxury. Gordon wants nothing more than a life of adventure.

Meanwhile, Lucy and Archie Yates, the grandchildren of the Marquess of Ross, have everything they could ever need. But they too yearn for different lives.

But as the two families meet in Oxford, they find their dreams don’t always come true. At least not in the way they planned.

I hadn’t read any Anne Melville books before this one but was intrigued by the promise of adventure. There was just enough here to keep me happy, with two journeys bookending more domestic and academic scenes set in Oxford and on the Marquess of Ross’s estate. That said, there is flirtation and romance between young people, so it could be argued that some misadventure may feature.

Of the characters, Midge Hardie held my interest the most throughout. I felt frustrated on her behalf by the limitations imposed upon her academic pursuits, while admiring her diligence and commitment to them. She works with what little she has in terms of her freedom of movement and association within society and the small boundaries of her Oxford world. In her own small way, she’s a pioneer.

I admired Midge’s brother, Gordon, for his early spirit and how he stayed true to his goal of future adventures but he almost lost my sympathy when it came to matters of the heart. Lucy is an interesting character, talented but entirely wasted on her grandfather’s estate; I questioned her motives but admired her all the same for her naivety and bravery. Archie seemed the least forward-looking of the quartet; a sad product of the times and his upbringing, and too weak or lazy to do much about it.

I would have liked more depth and detail in places but this first book is a gentle introduction to The Family Hardie series. Anne Melville’s The House of Hardie is an enjoyable historical novel, with some interesting characters, that fulfilled my need for some travel and adventure.

The House of Hardie by Anne Melville was first published in 1987 and is the first in The Hardie Family series. It’s now been published by Agora Books, part of Peters, Fraser + Dunlop, one of the longest established literary and talent agencies in London, and is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can buy it from Amazon UK.

Anne Melville was the pseudonym of Margaret Edith Newman, 1926 – 1998. Over the course of her career she published fifty-five novels in romance, mystery, historical fiction and children’s.

My thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley

Book Review: Then She Vanishes by Claire Douglas

Then She Vanishes opens with an uncharacteristic and shocking act, no clear motive behind it, but as Claire Douglas soon shows us, things are rarely that straightforward, especially when it comes to family.

Heather and Jess were best friends – until the night Heather’s sister vanished. Jess has never forgiven herself for the lie she told that night. Nor has Heather.

But now Heather is accused of an awful crime. And Jess is forced to return to the sleepy seaside town where they grew up, to ask the question she’s avoided for so long: What really happened the night Flora disappeared?

Claire Douglas shows how this family continues to be affected and their lives shaped by the unsolved disappearance of elder sister Flora some years earlier, together with how it must feel to have someone you love identified as the perpetrator of a crime, being unable to speak to them about it, all while having to deal with the press camped out on your doorstep and needing to go about some semblance of normal life.

What made this story for me was the character of Jess, the disgraced young journalist, who returns to the seaside town that was once her childhood home, in search of a good story before the competition finds it. Now thrown back into the orbit of people she once idolised, at a vulnerable time for them, it’s fascinating to watch her attempt to rekindle the relationship and observe her own personal dilemma play out: Will she choose career over what was once a surrogate family to her?

I loved how much more involved this book became, the further I read into it. Then She Disappears reminded me how relationships and family are complicated and nuanced creatures, how vulnerable human beings are and how devious we can be. Tragically, it also shows how oblivious we can be to the people and things happening all around us and why we often miss the obvious.

Then She Disappears is the shocking and absorbing story of a family once again finding themselves in crisis, and the many papered-over cracks and layers that lie behind that. Claire Douglas tells their story with sensitivity and I couldn’t help but be affected by it. It also serves as a useful reminder that things are seldom as obvious or as simple as the headlines suggest. Loved this and can recommend it.

Then She Vanishes by Claire Douglas is published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Books UK. It is available as an audiobook and ebook now and in paperback from 8 August. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. Claire Douglas is a Sunday Times Top 5 Bestseller of four thrillers. You can find her on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley

Book Review: Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill

As a local archaeological dig unearths harsh burial rites and customs, secrets in the Vermuydens’ own more recent past threaten their fragile equilibrium in Fiona Neill’s latest novel.

After a chaotic childhood, Grace Vermuyden is determined her own daughters will fulfil the dreams denied to her.

Lilly is everyone’s golden girl, the popular, clever daughter she never had to worry about. So when she mysteriously collapses in class, Grace’s carefully ordered world begins to unravel. Dark rumours swirl around their tight-knit community as everyone comes up with their own theories about what happened.

Consumed with paranoia, and faced with increasing evidence that Lilly has been leading a secret life, Grace starts to search for clues. But left to her own devices, ten-year-old Mia develops some wild theories of her own that have unforeseen and devastating consequences for the people she loves most.

The archaeological dig Mia’s class visits indicates how well-preserved the past is here, as well as how different and difficult life once was in the Fens. (The greater impact of the dig on one section of society signals that there are still disparities and where there’s room for improvement.)

The man-made landscape is susceptible to Mother Nature exposing that which was previously buried. Storms roll in, causing flash floods or Fen Blow, where loose topsoil is lifted up and carried in the wind to be deposited elsewhere. These natural forces, in combination with more human shortcomings, converge on the Vermuyden family home, putting some relics and the secrets they embody at risk of discovery.

Vermuyden ancestors helped to reclaim the fens from the sea and their modern-day counterparts are in turn trying to prevent this marshy region from encroaching on their home. The already stressful situation is further exacerbated when a perfect storm of conflicting issues hits the family, with the potential to be every bit as corrosive as those sudden squalls which redraw the marshlands around their home.

Fiona Neill’s Beneath the Surface conveys a real sense of the Vermuydens struggling to maintain their footing, every bit as hampered and out of their element as Mia’s increasingly desolate pet eel. I read this book, almost frantic that he be returned to his watery home in time and for the Vermuydens to find a way to keep each other and their family unit afloat. Beneath the Surface is a gripping Fenland family drama inextricably bound up in the very landscape which shapes it.

Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill is published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive where every purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. For more on Fiona and her writing, check out her Author Website. 

My thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley

Book Review: The Unmaking of Ellie Rook by Sandra Ireland

What starts as one young woman’s summons home in the aftermath of her mother’s death at a local beauty spot, steeped in legend, quickly becomes something altogether darker and more troubling.

A single phone call from halfway across the world is all it takes to bring her home . . . ‘Ellie, something bad has happened.’

Desperate to escape her ‘kid from the scrapyard’ reputation, Ellie Rook has forged a new life for herself abroad, but tragedy strikes when her mother, Imelda, falls from a notorious waterfall. Here, according to local legend, the warrior queen Finella jumped to her death after killing a king. In the wake of her mother’s disappearance, Ellie is forced to confront some disturbing truths about the family she left behind and the woman she has become.

Can a long-dead queen hold the key to Ellie’s survival? And how far will she go to right a wrong?

Sandra Ireland has made use of folklore before in her writing but nowhere is it more inextricably linked to her modern-day story than here in The Unmaking of Ellie Rook. Ellie was named for the Queen whose escape from those pursuing her became the stuff of legend.

It’s a story her mother, Imelda, told her time and time again, almost as if in doing so she was strengthening her for the trials to come and binding an enchantment around her. Yet the life Ellie left behind her and to which she now returns is far from enchanted or romantic, and she will need to channel all the courage of her namesake in order to deal with some very real demons.

This is the story of a family living on the edge in so many ways: they are the outsiders, living a secluded life on their own rural compound, and subject to the irrationality of controlling rules and behaviour. The forest and waterfall over which the Queen made her escape back on to their property and traces of that long-ago chase and more recent troubled memories still seem to stalk the land about them.

Sandra Ireland’s descriptions are poetic even when describing that which is stark and brutal. She conjures up this family and their forest dwelling incredibly well. I was willing Ellie on to stay strong, find a way to keep herself and her brother, River, safe, while also uncovering the truth behind Imelda’s disappearance before it too found its way into local lore and legend.

An immersive, evocative read where haunting folklore mirrors more contemporary brutality.

The Unmaking of Ellie Rook by Sandra Ireland is published by Polygon Books, an imprint of Birlinn Limited. It is out today and is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK, buy it direct from the publisher or from Hive where purchases help support your local independent bookshop. Sandra Ireland was born in Yorkshire, lived for many years in Limerick, and is now based in Carnoustie. Her work has appeared in various publications and women’s magazines. She is the author of Beneath the Skin (2016) and Bone Deep (2018).

My thanks to the publisher and LoveReadingUK for providing me with a review copy.

My #20BooksOfSummer 2019

Not having blogged since finishing the #AtoZChallenge in April and just over a week in, I’m joining in with the 20 Books Of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy who blogs over at 746 Books. All you need to do is read 20 books (or even 15 or 10, if you’re feeling pressed for time) between 3 June and 3 September.

I spent a good bit of time over the weekend trying to decide if I was going to choose a theme or not. For example, Karen over at BookerTalk is vicariously travelling around the world through her choices, which is a brilliant way to make the challenge fun.

In the end, I decided to go for a mix of review or book group picks with new releases I’m excited about reading.

Here are the books and, as it turns out, I’ve chosen ten hardbacks and ten paperbacks:

Madeline Miller’s novel Circe and Raynor Winn’s non-fiction The Salt Path, jumped to the top of my TBR pile thanks to them being book group picks for July and August. As a companion read to The Salt Path, I’ve also gone for Katherine May’s account of walking the South West Coastal Path, The Electricity of Every Living Thing. And to round out the South West grouping, there’s a collection of Cornish Short Stories edited by Emma Timpany and Felicity Notley to read and review. With contributions by established favourites Katherine Stansfield and Tom Vowler, I’m also excited to discover new writing within its pages.

I’ve been meaning to read Ben Ryan’s rugby book Sevens Heaven ever since it came out in May 2018. Not only did it recently win The Telegraph Rugby Book of the Year but it also won the overall Sports Book of the Year and, as it is Rugby Sevens time of year, it’ll provide me with my fix until the next club rugby season and the Rugby World Cup in Japan begin in September.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Elizabeth Day’s novels but this year I’m turning to her non-fiction title How to Fail. I’m hoping that it’s going to help me see my own mammoth failures of the past year in a whole new light and help me find ways in which to learn from them and perhaps even turn them around.

There are three other non-fiction titles on my list: Johann Hari’s Lost Connections which claims to have a fresh take on depression and anxiety and their underlying causes; I’ve long been a fan of Kerry Hudson’s fiction but this year she’s turned her hand to memoir, writing about growing up in poverty in Britain and revisiting those towns she lived in. It’s a book which has been widely acclaimed already and I can’t wait to read it this summer; and Marc Hamer’s mix of memoir and nature writing How to Catch a Mole, and Find Yourself in Nature promises to be well worth a read. I’ve enjoyed Marc’s poetry and am looking forward to reading this beautifully-produced book very much. Read more

Book Review: The Zoo by Christopher Wilson

I was browsing the shelves in Cardiff Waterstones after book group on Sunday afternoon when I came across Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo. Although I already had a book lined up for Z in the A to Z Challenge, this satire really appealed, so here we are.

Meet Yuri Zipit.

A boy who’s had a bang on the head in a collision with a Moscow milk truck.

He has a kind face, makes friends easily, and likes to help. People want to tell him their secrets.

Including the Great Leader himself, who takes a shine to Yuri when he employs him for his natural talents.

In his new job, Yuri will witness it all – betrayals, body doubles, buffoonery. Who knew that a man could be in five places at once? That someone could break your nose as a sign of friendship? That people could be disinvented . . .?

I rattled through Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo which sprints right out of the gate. Twelve-year-old Yuri is excitable, filled with facts and questions that tumble out of him, and I couldn’t help but be swept along in the slipstream of this, sometimes doubting if I could keep up with the pace.

It’s 1953 and Yuri lives with his father, a Professor of Veterinary Science, in the staff block at the Kapital Zoo. His father specialises in Cordate Neurology (the study of the brain in any animal with a backbone) and is attached to the Zoo. After two childhood accidents when he was six and a lightning strike, Yuri has been left brain damaged and also suffers from epilepsy. While he’s intelligent and can observe what’s going on around him, he’s not always adept at understanding the meaning behind what people say or do.

When he’s plunged into Stalin’s inner circle, things rapidly become yet more complicated. As he explains it, he doubts anyone would fully understand what was going on, even if they had a fully-functioning brain:

To grasp it all you would need to speak Georgian like a native, tell dirty jokes like a Mingrelian secret policeman, … , be able to drink two bottles of pepper vodka and still stay sober, be a consultant in Neurology, and a senior member of the Politburo, with a doctorate in assassinations.

I can understand why not everyone will be comfortable with Yuri as the book’s main character but I think he’s treated sympathetically by his creator and works well here. It’s not so much of a leap to accept that he might have found himself where he does, when it would have required a greater suspension of disbelief with another character. The fact that he takes things at face value also helps to keep things light.

Yuri invites confidences because his naivety sees him dismissed and means he’s not considered to pose a threat, gaining him access to conversations and rooms from which he’d otherwise have been barred. And it’s this unique perspective which allows Christopher Wilson to lampoon the excess and hypocrisy of Stalin and his inner circle with their lavish feasts and Western cinema, political manoeuvring and body doubles, while also giving the reader a taste of the more disturbing and brutal acts. Read more

Book Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It is a collection of eleven short stories looking at our perception of not only others but ourselves as well, and just how often we get it wrong.

In ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’, a married woman flirts with a man she meets at parties by playing You think it, I’ll say it, putting into words the bitchy things she guesses he’s thinking about their fellow guests. But she is in for a shock when, in time, she finds out what was really in his mind.

The Nominee’ sees Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, confessing her surprising true feelings about a woman journalist she has sparred with over the years. In ‘Gender Studies’, a visiting academic sleeps with her taxi driver, for what turns out to be all the wrong reasons. 

Although it has a different title to the overall collection, The World Has Many Butterflies is the title story and encapsulates what is happening in the stories Curtis Sittenfeld tells us here.

The main characters are playing a game, which we all play to a greater or lesser extent as we go through life, by trying to condense another human being down to a bitesize personality trait or psychological term, and have that define them or sum them up. It’s about how we try to read and evaluate, or judge and accept/dismiss (depending on how harmless or mean-spirited you think the game is) the people we meet throughout our lives, and how easily we’re able to fool ourselves when it comes to our own behaviour.

The stories follow a character’s rarely-voiced and privately-held internal thoughts and we often see what has changed since those misconceptions were first formed in their present-day, older selves, as in A Regular Couple and The Prairie Wife where the tables have turned. There are exceptions to this, such as in Off the Record, where an interview with a rising star goes disastrously but helps the journalist realise something more significant, and in the final story Do-Over, where two former school friends meet up for dinner and get the chance to air their thoughts on what happened back in the day. Read more

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