Reviews

A week of book reviews – ‘Notes to Self’ by Emilie Pine #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

I have been absolutely snowed under with work over the last few weeks – not that I’m complaining – and although I’ve been reading as much as I can, I haven’t got round to reviewing. So this week I’m determined to catch up with a review a day.

‘I am afraid of being the disruptive woman. And of not being disruptive enough. I am afraid. But I am doing it anyway.’

In this dazzling debut, Emilie Pine speaks to the business of living as a woman in the 21st century – its extraordinary pain and its extraordinary joy. Courageous, humane and uncompromising, she writes with radical honesty on birth and death, on the grief of infertility, on caring for her alcoholic father, on taboos around female bodies and female pain, on sexual violence and violence against the self. Devastatingly poignant and profoundly wise – and joyful against the odds – Notes to Self offers a portrait not just of its author but of a whole generation.

I have to say the blurb makes this sound like a misery fest, but that is very far from the truth. This is a brilliant book – emotional, insightful, intelligent, terribly sad in places but a joy to read. In a world where there are so many bad books, so much badly written TV, endless remakes of mediocre films, it’s easy to sometimes forget that there is still real talent out there, and Ms Pine’s voice is like a breath of fresh air. 

There were things here that really resonated with me, but even those experiences I didn’t identify with were still so beautifully written, so informative, so honest and real.

One of my favourite books of the year.

Available from Hive.

A week of book reviews – ‘The Rumour’ by Lesley Kara #BookReview

I have been absolutely snowed under with work over the last few weeks – not that I’m complaining – and although I’ve been reading as much as I can, I haven’t got round to reviewing. So this week I’m determined to catch up with a review a day.

When single mum Joanna hears a rumour at the school gates, she never intends to pass it on. But one casual comment leads to another and now there’s no going back . . .

Rumour has it that a notorious child killer is living under a new identity, in their sleepy little town of Flinstead-on-Sea.

Sally McGowan was just ten years old when she stabbed little Robbie Harris to death forty-eight years ago – no photos of her exist since her release as a young woman.

So who is the supposedly reformed killer who now lives among them? How dangerous can one rumour become? And how far will Joanna go to protect her loved ones from harm, when she realizes what it is she’s unleashed?

Anyone who has had to spend a few years at the school gates to drop off and pick up a child will know that it can feel very much like being back at school yourself – the gossip, the cliques, trying to fit in, feeling pathetic because no one talks to you, the mums who smile and wave one day and ignore you the next… it can be quite a traumatic experience.

And when your child finds it hard to make friends, it can feel like the most important thing in the world to make sure you fit in, to make life easier for them.

Which is exactly what tempts Joanna to get involved in spreading a rumour – one that will have far reaching consequences.

This is a really interesting premise, and one that is very pertinent at the moment, particularly in the way Twitter is used to show how things can get out of hand. It shows how easy it is for things to go too far, for things to run away from you. Joanna is relatable, and it’s refreshing to have a character that has all those little insecurities lots of parents feel. And the story behind the rumour is really interesting too – can little Sally McGowan really be held responsible for her crime?

A good read, well-paced, well-written, with a good twist at the end. Well worth a read.

Available from Hive

‘The Hunger’ by Alma Katsu #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview #HistoricalFiction #Supernatural

hunger

Hive   The Big Green Bookshop

 

After having travelled west for weeks, the party of pioneers comes to a crossroads. It is time for their leader, George Donner, to make a choice. They face two diverging paths which lead to the same destination. One is well-documented – the other untested, but rumoured to be shorter.

Donner’s decision will shape the lives of everyone travelling with him. The searing heat of the desert gives way to biting winds and a bitter cold that freezes the cattle where they stand. Driven to the brink of madness, the ill-fated group struggles to survive and minor disagreements turn into violent confrontations. Then the children begin to disappear. As the survivors turn against each other, a few begin to realise that the threat they face reaches beyond the fury of the natural elements, to something more primal and far more deadly.

Based on the true story of The Donner Party, The Hunger is an eerie, shiver-inducing exploration of human nature, pushed to its breaking point.

Combining historical fiction with the supernatural, the author cleverly blends the actual horrors of the pioneer wagon trail with something even more terrifying and deadly. It all adds up to a novel that is so interesting in so many different ways.

The hardships the families face are bleak enough and they are told unflinchingly in a narrative that is full of historical detail that never overwhelms. The characters are authentic, honest and engaging – some you hate, some you love, every one of them is three-dimensional.

The portrayal of their journey would be interesting enough, but the addition of something lurking in the woods, ready to pounce, adds to the claustrophobia that surrounds the travellers. And the author uses restraint so well, biding her time, building the suspense slowly, racking up the tension, making this a true page turner.

Accomplished, unusual, and a truly thrilling read.

5 stars

‘Sleep’ by C. L. Taylor #BookReview #FridayReads

s-l640

Hive

All Anna wants is to be able to sleep. But crushing insomnia, terrifying night terrors and memories of that terrible night are making it impossible. If only she didn’t feel so guilty…

To escape her past, Anna takes a job at a hotel on the remote Scottish island of Rum, but when seven guests join her, what started as a retreat from the world turns into a deadly nightmare.

Each of the guests have a secret, but one of them is lying – about who they are and why they’re on the island. There’s a murderer staying in the Bay View hotel. And they’ve set their sights on Anna.

Seven strangers. Seven secrets. One deadly lie.

‘Sleep’ is very well-written, has a fascinating setting, and, while I’m usually good at guessing the culprit, I had no idea who it was in the case, until very close to the end.

So the novel works very well on that level, and if a good solid mystery is what you’re after, then this should definitely be your cup of tea.

But, having read the blurb, and some of the reviews, I was really expecting this to be an edge of the seat, scary and thrilling read. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that to be the case. While there are all the elementsthere for a creepy, terrifying suspense, I just didn’t work for me on that level.

A shame, but I have previously read ‘The Fear’ by the same author which I really enjoyed, so I would definitely read more of C. L. Taylor’s work.

three and a half stars

‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

the five

Hive

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.
What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.
Their murderer was never identified, but the name created for him by the press has become far more famous than any of these five women.
Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, historian Hallie Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, and gives these women back their stories.

This is a fascinating book in a lot of ways. I have always found the obsession some have with Jack the Ripper quite worrying – yes, his identity is intriguing, but the interest does seem to lean to a fascination with the grisly deaths of women, with these women almost side characters to the whole nasty, cruel business. We have tourist attractions and even museums about him, with the women reduced to mere props. I remember going to Madame Tussauds as a child and walking through the Ripper exhibition, with the recorded voices of women trying to attract clients, a wax model of a women, bloody and gory – a tourist attraction built on horrible, terrifying, painful tragedy visited on real people. The Jack the Ripper Museum sells fridge magnets and bloodstained memorabilia. There’s a lot to unpick there and probably not in a book review, but it goes to show how twisted our fascination with these murders has become.

So a book that focuses on the five victims as people is welcomed, and this book treats them warmly and with compassion, while setting out clearly and unflinchingly the way in which a patriarchal, classist and frankly misogynist society forced women into an endless life of toil, childbirth and misery. Life was grim and unrelenting for these women. The social structures that forced them into these lives is well-described, and absolutely fascinating.

There were a couple of issues for me though. At first, it felt as though, in proving that four of the five victims weren’t actually prostitutes, this meant we should feel more sympathy for them, that their reputations had been sullied by this assumption. But I don’t see why  a prostitute is less deserving of our sympathy. A prostitute doesn’t deserve to be murdered. And while it is important to show that these women were mothers, and wives, and daughters, and sisters, and that they laughed, and cried and worried about money, and were human beings, and that while it is important to take the narrative away from the murderer and to show the women he destroyed as people, I’m not sure that so much focus should be on whether or not they were prostitutes, because it doesn’t matter.

It’s tricky, because the popular narrative is that the women were prostitutes, out at night plying ther trade, and they were killed. The author shows that four of the five weren’t prostitutes, and so disproves this narrative. Which is important, because there is a nasty kind of titillation around the prostitution narrative. But, we are left with the feeling that the death of a prostitute is less of a tragedy – which it isn’t. And there is so much hypocrisy around the whole issue of sex work, that it’s important that we don’t add anything to the idea that it is somehow shameful.

Later on in the narrative, the author does address this to an extent, but the emphasis on the idea that four of the five women weren’t prostitutes did leave me feeling a little uncomfortable. There is still this idea whenever women are killed that if they were prostitutes killed by a client, or if they were women who sometimes slept with men for money or a home or security, or if they were alcoholics or drug addicts, then we shouldn’t care so much about their deaths. We absolutely should.

My other issue is that there’s a lot of conjecture around how the women felt about the things that happened to them in their lives. While there is a place for this, it did become a little wearing after a while. We don’t know how these women felt about anything, because they can’t tell us; we can assume some things, but whether or not those assumptions have a place in a book like this is tricky. While trying to humanise the women, and show them as people, it does feel as though the author sometimes goes too far.

That said, what we learn about the women themselves, the lives they lived, and the conditions in Victorian England, is fascinating. There is so much here that I didn’t know. For me, the best part of the book was the way it showed how society set these women up to fail, and then judged them as they did exactly that. Walking with these women through their lives, knowing their fate, is emotional and poignant. And it made me furious too – furious that this is what they and many others suffered, and furious that women are still judged more harshly than men, that our opportunities are still limited, that prostitutes are still vilified and judged, and judged more harshly than the men that use them.

So, on balance, while there were aspects of this book that didn’t work for me, overall I would recommend it. It’s an important book, and a brave one too (the author has, inevitably, received horrible abuse from mainly male ‘ripperologists’ online), and I’m very glad I read it. When I think of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane now, I no longer think of the ‘Chamber of Horrors’ in Madame Tussauds, but of five women, who lived and loved and who were human.

 

4 stars

‘Deleted’ by Sylvia Hehir @shehir853 #RBRT #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

#RBRT Review Team

I read and reviewed ‘Deleted’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team

Deleted

Big Green Bookshop    Hive

How much worse can Dee’s life get? Having already suffered a traumatic break up with her boyfriend, her best friend is now warning her off the handsome new boy in the village. So what if his dad is a traveller? And that’s without all the problems she’s having with her mobile phone. A young adult romance with a hint of mystery.

As an editor I read a lot of YA fiction, and one thing that annoys me is when the author clearly doesn’t know anyone who is actually YA! This often comes through in writing that is patronising and preachy. Sylvia Hehir ‘s writing is neither of those things. She is a writer who obviously likes her audience and has a great deal of respect for them.

This means she writes characters that are authentic, well-rounded, likeable and easy to identify with. Their concerns feel real and she doesn’t belittle their hopes, fears, anxieties and ambitions.

Dee is a lovely main character and, even as a middle-aged adult, I found her story engaging and interesting. The author portrays Dee’s world so well, it’s easy to imagine the village, the club, the wild countryside. And her relationship with Tom is explored sensitively and thoughtfully.

The writing is excellent and the novel has a lovely pace too.

It’s made me really angry to see young people criticised so nastily by some aspects of the press during this pandemic. All the young people I know are thoughtful, compassionate and really care about the world. A lot of older people don’t seem to grasp how dreadful it is for young adults to see their futures become so uncertain. It’s lovely to read YA by an author who has a real grasp of how much there is to like about the younger generation.

All in all, an outstanding YA novel, and highly recommended.

5 stars

 

 

‘The Teacher’ by Katerina Diamond #BookReview #FridayReads

The Teacher

Big Green Bookshop  Hive

A web of a plot that twists and turns and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. This formidable debut is a page-turner, but don t read it before bed if you re easily spooked! SUN

You think you know who to trust? You think you know the difference between good and evil? You’re wrong …

The body of the head teacher of an exclusive Devon school is found hanging from the rafters in the assembly hall.

Hours earlier he’d received a package, and only he could understand the silent message it conveyed. It meant the end.

As Exeter suffers a rising count of gruesome deaths, troubled DS Imogen Grey and DS Adrian Miles must solve the case and make their city safe again.

But as they’re drawn into a network of corruption, lies and exploitation, every step brings them closer to grim secrets hidden at the heart of their community.

And once they learn what s motivating this killer, will they truly want to stop him?

SMART. GRIPPING. GRUESOME.

This is a psychological crime thriller in a class of its own.

WARNING: Most definitely *not* for the faint-hearted!

This certainly promised a lot – but unfortunately it didn’t deliver.

I’m not bothered by gore or the gruesome. I’m happy to read most things as long as they’re well-written. So the subject matter didn’t worry me at all.

The idea behind this novel is really sound and has loads of potential. A series of grisly murders, a couple of potentially likeable detectives, some interesting characters and a twisty conspiracy theory. All the elements for a great page-turner are there.

But the editing is dreadful. The dialogue is unwieldy and strangely formal (use contractions for goodness sake!). There are lots and lots of long-winded sentences that drag on and on. I couldn’t believe this was published by Harper Collins.

I can’t blame the author for the poor editing, but I did feel that the motive behind the conspiracy was really woolly and not at all convincing.

Frustrating, because there’s a clever story here, that could be brilliant.

three stars

 

 

‘Women’ by Chloe Caldwell #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

women

Big Green Bookshop      Hive

A young woman moves from the countryside to the city.
Inexplicably, inexorably and immediately, she falls in love with another woman for the first time in her life.
Finn is nineteen years older than her, wears men’s clothes, has a cocky smirk of a smile – and a long-term girlfriend.
With precision, wit and tenderness, Women charts the frenzy and the fall out of love.

This novella is incredibly well-written. Every sentence is put together beautifully. It’s a masterclass in how to write evocatively, almost poetically, while still producing prose that is eminently readable and that flows effortlessly.

The unnamed narrator of this story is refreshingly mixed-up and chaotic. She doesn’t know what she wants, or what makes her happy, and she makes mistakes. She’s confused about her feelings for Finn, confused about what she wants, and she makes the wrong choices.

Finn is an enigma – we never really get to know her, but then neither does the narrator. And that adds a real authenticity to the narrative.

That said, I did find the characters a little self-absorbed at times, the narrator in particular. There were times when I wanted to scream ‘grow up!’ but that reaction certainly means the character got to me!

Perhaps the current situation in the world has made me suffer fools less gladly, and perhaps I may have been more tolerant of the narrator’s issues a few months ago – but I did feel at times as though I wanted to give her a kick up the backside! It’s hard to really love a story when you don’t particularly like the main protagonist.

That said, this takes nothing away from the writing itself – which really is beautiful.

four-and-a-half-stars

‘The Mirror and the Light’ by Hilary Mantel #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

mirror

    Hive       The Big Green Bookshop

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.

Back in December 2012, on the release of ‘Bring up the Bodies’, I went to a talk given by Hilary Mantel at Draper’s Hall in London, the site of Thomas Cromwell’s London home. She talked about the third in the series, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ and I’ve been waiting since then to read it.

Hilary

Me and Hilary!

It’s been a long eight years! But it was so worth the wait.

I pre-ordered ‘The Mirror and the Light’, obviously, and then decided when it arrived that I would have to read ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ again first. So these weird weeks of lockdown have seen me immersed in Tudor London again, and, very weirdly, falling in love with Thomas Cromwell. Again.

I have read a lot of books. I have spent my life reading. My two degrees have involved a huge amount of reading, and reading, in the words of Anne Bronte, in my favourite occupation. And in all this reading, all these books, Hilary Mantel is my absolute favourite author. If I could only read one author, ever, it would be Mantel, by a huge margin

She has this amazing ability to draw you so completely into her world, to be able to picture each scene, to feel everything. In Cromwell, as with Danton in ‘A Place of Greater Safety’, she has created an unlikely hero, but she makes him so fully formed that you can’t help but love him, and feel for him.

The writing is beautiful. There are turns of phrase that stop you in your tracks. And the amount of research she must have done to bring the Tudor world to life so accurately and authentically, from the food to the smells to the dress to the customs, is astonishing.

I particularly appreciated the way the story of Anne of Cleves was told – a woman whose attractiveness and personal hygiene has been horribly falsified. In fact, Mantel treats all her ‘characters’ with honesty and respect, showing how the politics, the treaties, the hierarchies and social systems of the time often forced people to lie, and betray others out of fear.

Whatever you think of Cromwell, he was an extraordinary man – to rise from his humble beginnings to become the second most powerful man in the kingdom, after the king, he must have had incredible intelligence. While we can’t ever really know what he was actually like, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ and the previous two books in the series, provide a fascinating and compelling journey through one of the most interesting periods of history.

I finished this book in absolute floods of tears – I can give no better review or recommendation than that. In my opinion, Mantel is our greatest living writer – and I’d be hard pressed to think of another, living or dead, whose work I would rather read.

Al least

5 stars

 

‘The Hunting Party’ by Lucy Foley #FridayReads #BookReview #crime #thriller

hunting party

Hive     Waterstones

In a remote hunting lodge, deep in the Scottish wilderness, old friends gather for New Year.The beautiful one
The golden couple
The volatile one
The new parents
The quiet one
The city boy
The outsider

The victim.

Not an accident – a murder among friends.

I love a good thriller where the story is character-driven, and this doesn’t disappoint.

A group of friends gather in a hunting lodge to celebrate New Year, but their apparently close friendships aren’t all they seem. In fact, they don’t seem to like each other very much.

Heather is the manager of the lodge, she’s there to escape something in her past. Doug, the enigmatic gamekeeper, is also hiding something. And the so-called friends seem to be hiding a lot of things from each other.

The story is told in flashbacks from the day a body is found, back and forth with the New Year celebrations, so we know what all the tension is leading up to – but we don’t know who the victim is or who did it. And there are so many skilfully placed clues and red herrings that the final revelation is a real surprise.

The landscape is almost a character in itself, beautifully described and so atmospheric.

There were just a couple of things that didn’t work for me. There was one aspect of the final outcome that didn’t quite ring true but I won’t say what that was for fear of spoilers. Also, I liked Heather so much, but I felt as though I didn’t get to know enough about her or her history.

That said, this is a really gripping and enjoyable read.

4 stars