Category: Book Reviews


I went on a e-book downloading spree a few days ago, and have been spending my free time trying to catch up on that long list of books waiting to be read! I’ve noticed that a few of the books I’ve read or reviewed recently have not been new one, so I’m aiming to review books that have released in 2017.

I’m still catching up, so bear with me – this is an interesting book about a con-man who may or may not get his comeuppance – I’ve only just started it but it looks promising!

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Jane Shemilt’s debut novel Daughter encapsulates every parents’ fear – the day that their child doesn’t come home. Jenny seems to have the perfect life – the perfect neurosurgeon husband, three high-achieving children and the perfect career – until her youngest child, 15-year-old Naomi goes to her school play one night and never comes home. As the hours turn into days and months, the police don’t seem to be getting anywhere, and Jenny is forced to re-examine her relationship not just with her daughter but the entire family. Fresh-faced, education-focused Naomi who apparently doesn’t like the taste of alcohol, doesn’t smoke and barely wears makeup is soon u51GCAP+U-qL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_nravelled throughout the course of Jenny’s memories and the investigation into the disappearance as not being all she seems. The fact that her daughter has been keeping many secrets from Jenny is just as painful as her disappearance, and likewise, Naomi’s twin older brothers, Ed and Theo, seem to be hiding a few secrets of their own – and what of Ted, Jenny’s perfect surgeon husband?

As Jenny discovers more secrets about her daughter’s life, we see how she begins to see her own failings as a mother, and even the problems she has having with her career and marriage. I had a little bit of a gripe with the approach of this novel, which is intended to make us question the idea of parenting, although this perhaps may be to make the reader see the age-old question of whether a working mother can be a good parent – and the guilt that comes with this. Throughout, Jenny asserts that she has been a respectful mother who has given her children space and privacy, and yet there are glaring signs that this has gone wrong, her children have felt neglected, and that she doesn’t have a clue who her children really are. Again, there is a suggestion that it is never easy to know which is worse, being a ‘helicopter-parent’ or being a laid-back parent who gives their child too much freedom and independence.

The only thing which lets this narrative down is the structure – which alternates between the days leading up to and the immediate aftermath of Naomi’s disappearance, and a year later when Jenny is spending her Christmas in an isolated cottage, still searching for her daughter. While this is designed to explore memory and make us see scenes from difference points of time, it also was a little disappointing because it meant that every clue and lead found in the weeks following the disappearance led nowhere a year later. The Then and Now structure works for some novels but not this one – mainly because it makes the build-up slow and undermines the tension.

Without writing in any spoilers for the book, I will say that there are a lot of interesting twists and turns in the novel, although I wasn’t satisfied entirely with the ending of the story. A lot of other readers have agreed with me that the characters and their actions aren’t entirely believable, and that there are times when the characters don’t feel realistic in their actions. At times Jenny becomes a spoilt, middle-class trope for the modern parent who is too neglectful, which makes it a little harder to sympathise with her – yet it also seems that she is vilified so that she is made out to be a bad parent. This is also underscored by the fact that we never really meet the missing teenager herself – Naomi comes across as moody, secretive and mysterious by the people who think they know her.

Overall, this novel is fairly thought-provoking – can we ever completely know the ones we love? Jenny’s seemingly perfect life is only that on the surface, making us question whether it is possible to have it all – the perfect career, family and marriage. The general message of Daughter is that we don’t always know our families – particularly our teenage children – as well as we think we do.

Friyay!

It’s that time of the week – time to snuggle up with a good book or three, a big bar of chocolate and get the TV remote ready for that late-night comedy film. I haven’t been making much time for myself recent to relax and read books – probably because London’s recent and sudden heatwave has been making us lazy and not in the mood for much except ice-lollies and cold drinks. I’m promising myself some book-time this weekend though, not least because I want to review them, so watch this space!

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Something I’ve been reading this weekend, trying a little comedy and feminism wrapped up by the inimitable Caitlin Moran. What are you reading right now?

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“Snow White poisoned. Cinderella enslaved. Rapunzel locked up. Tessie, dumped with bones. Some monster’s twisted fantasy,”

“I am the Cartwright girl, dumped once upon a time with a strangled college student and a stack of human bones out past Highway 10, in an abandoned patch of field near the Jenkins property. I am the star of screaming tabloid headlines and campfire ghost stories. I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans. The lucky one.”

Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin follows Tessa (no longer ‘Tessie’, a name which has been abandoned along with her childhood innocence), lone surviving victim of a serial killer who dumped her along with three other dead girls, buried amongst the yellow flowers known as ‘Black-eyed Susans’, which also becomes their moniker. Hindered by her memory loss surrounding the incident, Tessa struggles to pinpoint who has done this to her, working through therapy and recovering with help of her best friend Lydia, but all the while unsure about what happened leading up to the time she was found and why she was chosen.

Now, 17 years later, Tessa’s doubts grow heavier about the man apprehended and serving on death-row for the crime, especially as the deadline for his black eyed susansexecution approaches. Re-examining the facts which don’t seem to add up, she re-counts the times that someone has planted Black-eyed Susans flower around her home, left there for her to find, as well as potential clues she has found and kept over the years. Now an adult with a teenaged daughter of her own, Tessa goes back to her memories and looks back with an adult mind, working with the police and with new DNA and forensic methods to find out if the right man really was caught, or if she is still in danger.

I’m not usually a big fan of the flashback method but in this case it works, the two narratives of Tessa at 17 after her abduction weaved with the perspective of Tessa in present time 17 years later work well together. The flashbacks are not prolonged or dragged out, and serve to heighten the anticipation as Tessa slowly unravels the mystery in both time periods.

Filled with intense, eccentric and interesting characters, the novel is a well-crafted one, making the mystery pulled together by not only the characters but their backgrounds and their stories. There’s Tessa’s  grandfather with his morbid fascination with death, fairy-tale stories and a giant, almost grotesque castle of a house; her best friend Lydia, a highly intelligent young girl who supports Tessa with witticisms and poetry, yet is fascinated by death, celebrity gossip murder cases and eccentric parts of history, Tessa’s own daughter Charlie, wiser than her years and cool in the face of Tessa’s fears; and of course their scatty elderly neighbour Effie, a quirky, brilliant scientist who can’t cook and is worried about someone stealing all the diggers in the neighbourhood.

I won’t agree with critics who say this is for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – although it may perhaps have a touch of the same dark mystery of Dark Places by the same author, which follows a woman looking for answers about her family’s massacre. The book is one that slowly creeps up on the reader, intense but well-researched, combining the psychological with facts about forensics. For those who like thrillers and mystery, this is a good pick although be prepared for a slower unravelling of the story rather than fast-paced action.

Although I wasn’t entirely too satisfied with the ending of this novel, it is a good one, and there is enough of the unexpected if you don’t spot the hints along the way. Heaberlin has an ability to create characters which, although flawed, are interesting ones – Tessa herself is a myriad of emotions and but her growth from scarred teenager to a stable, confident woman and mother is admirable. This is a satisfyingly creepy and compelling story, almost a twist on a dark fairytale which leads you through to new questions with each new answer given – but definitely a thriller to remember.

 

But I believe above all that I wanted to build the palace of my memory, because my memory is my only homeland.
Anselm Keifer

It’s not often that I find a book which strikes a chord with me, even if it’s not a topic I don’t know much about or can relate to as well as others. It brings me to mind similar novels, simple yet amazingly written stories like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’ and ‘Room’, both which handle sensitive issues well yet still engages the reader to a level which makes us think about the book long after we have finished reading.

EIM-pb-jacketElizabeth is Missing follows the narrative of 80-something-year-old Maud, who has been forgetting things more often lately, suffering from a growing but unnamed problem (which could be dementia, Alzheimer’s or just elderly senility), that makes her forget where she puts things, how many tins of peaches to buy (even though the cupboard is already full of them) and at times, who her daughter and granddaughter are. But Maud has her good moments too, gossiping with her friend Elizabeth, her love for her daughters and her granddaughter Katy, and the fact that she still has her own house that she can walk to the local shop from.
Lately Maud has been concerned with her friend Elizabeth, who has gone missing and which no one is telling her about, which causes ripples further than the questions she asks. Despite being told not to worry by her daughters, Elizabeth’s son, her caretakers and even the police, she becomes more and more convinced that Elizabeth is in danger.

As we follow Maud’s investigation into this disappearance, we see that she is hampered by her inability to remember things which happened just a few seconds ago. Yet there are some things from her past which come much more vividly to her, most importantly the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of her older, newly-married sister Sukey when Maud was a teenager 70 years earlier, and the subsequent incidents following her disappearance and the fact that she was never found. Remembering back to her sister’s life following up to the time she went missing, Maud also examines the strange behaviour of the people who knew her, such as her husband, her parents, their lodger and even the crazy lady who lives up the road.

As we follow both of these mysteries, we see how Maud’s obsession with Elizabeth’s disappearance parallels her memories of her sister, interconnecting past with the present so that her quest to find Elizabeth begins to overlap with Sukey in her mind and her memories as the book goes on. While we may not necessarily be able to understand how dementia feels, it’s beautifully written so we are able to sympathise with Maud’s fragmented mind, drawing us into the story even when the scenes feel so every day.

I read this at the same time as The Girl on the Train, and although both feature mystery, missing memories and a feeling of disorientation, the results are a lot more striking in difference. While in The Girl on the Train can made me feel a little lost and even disappointing at times, Elizabeth is Missing successfully lets us see the effects of old age and dementia even while we are lost with Maud. Throughout the novel, whether it is the elderly Maud we see or her 15-year-old version, her character is unforgettable – funny, warm and even at times unexpectedly impressive even when her frustrating memory loss lets her down.

This sounds like a depressing novel, but it’s not – there are comical moments in the mundane, ordinary events of Maud’s life, beautiful moments in the midst of heartbreak, and her character is one we embrace, rather than be embarrassed of. Not only does it address everyday routines we take for granted, it unwaveringly presents the embarrassments, the small frights, the patronising attitudes and remarks, and the simple limitations that comes with old age. And whether it is funny at times, embarrassing or even moving, these little stories all ring true to life. It’s worth a read to see another view of everyday life, even if it’s to answer that age-old question “Where is the best place to grow marrows?”

If you ever thought the talents of Mr T were wasted and needed to be re-chanelled into the works of Shakespeare, search no more – Mr T is the new face of Othello. I’m hoping he knocks out Iago with a Snickers bar and tells him to stop being a dam’ fool in this one.

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sonder
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
– The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrrows.

The idea of a narrator travelling back and forth to London by train is something a lot of us commuters can relate to, watching our fellow travellers go about their morning rituals, absorbed in their books, mobiles phones, iPads, staring out of windows and generally avoiding each other in all of our splendid British awkwardness.

“There is something comforting at the sight of strangers safe at home.”

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Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train follows Rachel and her daily train journey into London, giving us the chance to relate to the monotone journeys . Everyday it stops at the same place, giving her the chance to peer into the life of a young couple who live in a row of houses behind the railway tracks, whom she calls Jess and Jason. Daydreaming about their perfect relationship, Rachel becomes more and more obsessed with the details of their lives, embellishing their story and giving herself hope that happiness exists out there somewhere.

“It’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.”

But it also from here we learn that Rachel is not the perfect narrator – she’s depressed, self-pitying, and bitter. She has an alcohol-dependency problem, she’s lost her job, and her life is spiralling downwards and is looking like a dead-end. For there is another reason that this row of houses that her train stops at holds Rachel’s obsession – a few doors down from ‘Jess and Jason’ lives her ex-husband Tom, with his beautiful new wife and their baby in her old house.

“They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.”

If this isn’t bleak enough, events take a turn from this depressing start to get worse. Rachel wakes up from another drunken blackout, bruised and bloody and unable to remember the night before or how she got home. She also discovers that ‘Jess’, or Megan, as her real name is, has gone missing and that her seemingly perfect husband ‘Jason’ is the prime suspect. Becoming worried about her part in events, Rachel sets out to find out what happened in her lost hours, and also coming to terms with her own history with her ex-husband and their failed marriage.

The concept of this novel is an interesting one – intertwining the perspectives of three women; Rachel, the failed, miserable drunk, Megan, the missing woman and Anna, the beautiful wife who has replaced Rachel – all with their own flaws, problems and the events of one night which is seeped in mystery and ambiguity.

“I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head.”

There is a sense of disorientation throughout this novel which can be off-putting, and the lines between Rachel’s reality and her memories and drunken impressions can blur together at time, making it confusing about what has already happened and what is the present. It’s also a little depressing – Rachel is not an attractive character, and the ugly scenes of her alcohol abuse is even more depressing, down to the urine-soaked underwear and vomit on the stairs outlining her unaddressed mental issues and her inability to change the predictability of her life.

A lot of reviewers have commented that they found this book difficult to like, and that Rachel is a hard character to relate to because she is so self-pitying, stalker-ish and weak, and that her lack of responsibility for her actions is very off-putting. I agree that it took time to get into this book because of this – she may be a commuter on the train to London, but not one that we feel a kinship with,  if anything she is the embarrassing passenger we all see and hope that they don’t sit next to us.

“So who do I want to be tomorrow?”

Despite this, there’s an interesting mystery at the core of this story – we see how Rachel’s ‘Jess’ is nothing like the real Megan, and how she is a flawed character mirroring Rachel, and similarly we see Anna’s role as the not-so-triumphant victor in marriage and mother-hood. It’s also interesting to re-interpret this novel – is it about identity? About mental illness? Or does it have a darker tone which makes us question what we will do when we are pushed to our limits?

“I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose.”

I won’t include any spoilers for anyone who is still waiting to pick up this book, but I will add that patience is needed if you want to read this, mainly because there is a lot of meandering before the story picks up, and also because the character makes you question what’s in her mind and what really has happened. And the other characters in the novel are just as unpleasant at times – there’s a nasty streak in some of them which makes us question their motives, our reluctant sympathy for Rachel and the notion of peering out of a window and looking at the lives of strangers.

An interesting thriller and definitely different to a lot of murder mysteries I have read before, but it may not be to everyone’s tastes and there’s an unpleasant taste at the end of it because you’re left disliking most of the characters.

And The Mountains Echoed

Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk. ~Susan Scarf Merrell

And The Mountains Echoed, much like Khalid Hosseini’s earlier novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Sun begins, and draws its roots from Afghanistan and its tumultuous history, following on from the upheaval of the country in the 70s to emigration to America. Unlike his other two novels, however,  there is also a layering of characters from other cultures – Markos, a Greek surgeon, photographer and philanthropist, Nila, a part-French, part-Afghan artist who embodies the glamorous, detached Parisienne lifestyle, and Iqbal and his family, who have come home from emigration to Pakistan to find his family are unable to claim their home, or even Amra, a Bosnian nurse caring for the wounded in war-torn Kabul.

Although there is plenty of diversity in this story, at the heart of it all is the focus on the two primary characters, Abdullah and Pari, siblings whose close bond is ripped apart when they are separated at childhood, sold by a desperate father. So begins a ripple which resounds over the next 60 years, in which each sibling feeling incomplete without the other, affecting their families and friends around them.

There are several themes throughout the novel, which reverberate through each generation of siblings, lovers and friends – each of them having their own forms of abandonment and reconciliation, and each of them finding the true meaning of love and relationships over the years.

Normally a large number characters in a novel may overwhelm the story, but in this case, each character contributes, reinforcing a theme which subtly leads back to Abdullah and Pari. Each sibling carrying their own sense of incompleteness and abandonment; Abdullah growing up in Afghanistan and having his own family, emigrating to America in an attempt to find stability, and Pari, taken to France by her adoptive Mother, learning French culture and never understanding her identity and what is missing.

While this story is a little depressing in it’s telling, it’s beautifully written – there are parts of it which read like an old story being told, and indeed each character does tell his tale in order to contribute to this strange myth-like story.

If you’re looking for something full of culture, history and beauty, this has plenty of all three, and gives more besides. While it does show the characters and their yearning – to be elsewhere, to be with family or to be simply accepted – the characters are beautifully rendered, invoking a feeling of amity and the idea that you can step forward, and be a part of their lives.

A Polar Bear Journey

“You have travelled far, but the hardest part of a journey is always the next step.”
― Jackie Morris, East of the Sun, West of the Moon

There are some who argue that the fairy tale re-tellings genre are spoiled by already knowing the story and it’s ending. I say that the stories aren’t – it is not the ending of the story but the journey, and East by Edith Pattou certainly has a big journey, involving compasses, polar bears, ancient Seal tribes and a troll queen.eastL

East (also called North Child) begins with the marriage of Arne and superstitious Eugenia, which whom he eventually has seven children with. It is Eugenia’s belief that a person’s personality, and ultimately their destiny, is reliant on the direction that she was facing when the child was born – that is, a South-West facing birth is a South-West personality, and accordingly is named with the same SW initials. Eugenia neatly has a child for each point of the compass – until her favourite, East-born child, Elise dies, and she has another to replace her.

EBBA ROSE WAS THE NAME of our last-born child. Except it was a lie. Her name should have been Nyamh Rose. But everyone called her Rose rather than Ebba, so the lie didn’t matter. At least, that is what I told myself.

The Rose part of her name came from the symbol that lies at the center of the wind rose – which is fitting because she was lodged at the very center of my heart.

Having been told years earlier that a North child would be crushed by ice and snow, Eugenia is determined never to have a North child, and so when Rose is born, with ambiguity about her birth-direction hidden from her, and she is brought up being told that she is supposed to be an obedient, passive East child.

And so we follow Rose, that is, until one day a giant white bear comes to claim her; one who has watched her through her early life, and who is under an enchantment – and from there, Rose agrees to accompany him in return for health and prosperity for her poor family and sick sister. Pattou follows the original Norweigan story quite faithfully, although it is much more richly embroidered, in which we see the mysteries that Rose faces, and it is here that the real story beings and Rose’s real journey is revealed.

I loved the culture behind this story, that of the ancient tribe that Rose encountered, the Troll Kingdom, the history of compasses and mapmaking, and the stories behind the ship captains who carry Rose across the sea – each lend a story to the main one, showing Rose life beyond her parent’s icy gardens and the idea of love in different forms.

There are many versions of this story (including one being Beauty and the Beast), and I’m sure many of you will have read the story in one version or another. What makes this story more beautiful is the realism of it, the attention to detail in places, characters and culture that Rose is brought up in. While the Trolls and White Bear in the story have a sense of surrealism to them, which is both horrifying and magical, there is also a fiery character in Rose which shines through. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, then there’s several nonsensical troll words like Slank and Turik to twist your tongue on!

Edith Patou, East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: London 2005) pp. 528, £7.99