books

‘Mirrorland’ by Carole Johnstone #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

One twin ran. The other vanished. Neither escaped…

DON’T TRUST ANYONE
Cat’s twin sister El has disappeared. But there’s one thing Cat is sure of: her sister isn’t dead. She would have felt it. She would have known.

DON’T TRUST YOUR MEMORIES
To find her sister, Cat must return to their dark, crumbling childhood home and confront the horrors that wait there. Because it’s all coming back to Cat now: all the things she has buried, all the secrets she’s been running from.

DON’T TRUST THIS STORY…
The closer Cat comes to the truth, the closer to danger she is. Some things are better left in the past…

The most dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves…
No. 36 Westeryk Road: an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A place of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?

Now in her thirties, Cat has turned her back on her past. But when she receives news that one sunny morning, El left harbour in her sailboat and never came back, she is forced to return to Westeryk Road; to re-enter a forgotten world of lies, betrayal and danger.

Because El had a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets. And to discover the truth, Cat must first confront the reality of her childhood – a childhood that wasn’t nearly as idyllic as she remembers…

I’m going to use a cliche because it’s true – I couldn’t put this book down. Every page was a pleasure to read.

The narrative takes you from past to present, as Cat returns to her childhood home to try and make sense of her twin sister’s disappearance. But there are so many reasons she left and coming home brings all those things back to the surface. Switching like this can often be clunky and awkward, but here it works so well and the flashbacks, the details of the twins’ strange childhood, are beautifully done, so evocative and detailed.

As the past is slowly revealed, the tension really grows, and the reader is pulled along by the narrative, as almost every page seems to reveal another piece of the puzzle. It’s expertly done, absolutely gripping.

A very impressive debut. Very much looking forward to her next book.

‘Dark Corners’ by Darren O’Sullivan #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

You thought you’d escaped your past

It’s been twenty years since Neve’s best friend Chloe went missing. Neve has never recovered and promised herself she’d never go back to that place.

But secrets can come back to haunt you

When Neve receives news that her first boyfriend Jamie has gone missing, she’s forced to return. Jamie has vanished without a trace in a disappearance that echoes the events of all those years ago. Somebody is watching and will stop at nothing until the truth about what took place that night is revealed …

Neve left the mining village where she grew up after her best friend Chloe disappeared. Now, after the breakup of her relationship, and struggling to run a business with her friend, she returns to help in the search for another friend, and her first love, Jamie.

The story switches between the present day, and the events of twenty-one years ago. This is done very well, and there is no confusion. The plot is quite complex and there are lots of twists and turns to keep mystery fans happy, and the atmosphere is quite spooky. The writing is very good in places, particularly in the evocative descriptions of the abandoned mine, the headframe watching over everything.

But I did find it hard to really connect to the characters, which made it difficult to really feel the tension. and there were quite a few errors in the text, including a lot of unintentional switches from past to present tense in the earlier chapters.

I also found the ending a bit of a disappointment.

So, not for me, unfortunately, but the book does have a lot of really great reviews, so the author is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the mystery genre.

‘A Room Made of Leaves’ by Kate Grenville #TuesdayBookBlog #Bookreview

It is 1788. When twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth marries the arrogant and hot-headed soldier John Macarthur, she soon realises she has made a terrible mistake. Forced to travel with him to New South Wales, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming and rumours. All her life she has learned to fold herself up small. Now, in the vast landscapes of an unknown continent, Elizabeth has to discover a strength she never imagined, and passions she could never express.

Inspired by the real life of a remarkable woman, this is an extraordinarily rich, beautifully wrought novel of resilience, courage and the mystery of human desire.

There’s no question that this is a beautifully written novel from a very talented author. Some of the description is absolutely wonderful and there’s such a clear sense of time and place.

The opening chapters, describing Elizabeth’s childhood, worked the best for me, and the Elizabeth in these chapters felt very real and fully drawn.

Once the narrative moves to Australia, the novel didn’t work quite so well for me. I did feel that Elizabeth was a little too good to be true and that the portrayal of her husband was a bit superficial. I would have liked a bit more detail about the dynamics of their relationship, and also some more detail about the daily hardships of life in the new settlement. This aspect, in particular, was very glossed over. It must have been absolutely brutal, but it doesn’t really feel that way.

I think too, that, while there certainly is acknowledgement of the cruelty to the indigenous people of the area, this could have been more fully detailed. And is it really believable that Elizabeth would have been so enlightened, that she would have recognized that the immigrants from England were stealing land and food and lives from others?

That said, the book did leave me wanting to know more about the real Elizabth Macarthur, and it was, on the whole, a book that I’m glad to have read.

‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

China, 1941. With Japan’s declaration of war on the Allies, Elspeth Kent’s future changes forever. When soldiers take control of the missionary school where she teaches, comfortable security is replaced by rationing, uncertainty and fear.

Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School. Now the enemy, separated indefinitely from anxious parents, the children must turn to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – for help. But worse is to come when the pupils and teachers are sent to a distant internment camp. Unimaginable hardship, impossible choices and danger lie ahead.

Inspired by true events, this is the unforgettable story of the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher, in a remote corner of a terrible war.

I’ve read quite a few of Hazel Gaynor’s books and have loved every one of them. She has a really lovely way of writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, showing how those people find such strength of character in order to cope. The relationships between her characters are always a highlight too.

This novel is no exception. Elspeth and Nancy are authentic and likeable narrators, showing clearly their fear and bewilderment as their lives change so dramatically. What works particularly well is their belief that this can’t possibly be happening, that someone will come and hp them. It really made me, as a reader, think about what how I would react in those circumstances.

I did find, however, the storyline around the Girl Guides a little overdone. I can appreciate that it was something to hold onto, for the girls and their teachers, and something they used to give life in the camp a sense of normality, but it did take over the narrative in places.

Otherwise, another great novel by Hazel Gaynor, and definitely recommended.

‘Space Hopper’ by Helen Fisher #BookReview

If you could go back in time to find answers to the past, would you?
 
For Faye, the answer is yes. There is nothing she wouldn’t do to find out what really happened when she lost her mother as a child. She is happy with her life – she has a loving husband, two young daughters and supportive friends, even a job that she enjoys. But questions about the past keep haunting her, until one day she finally gets the chance she’s been waiting for.
 
But how far is she willing to go to find answers?
 
Space Hopper is an original and poignant story about mothers, memories and moments that shape life.

When she is just eight years old, Faye loses her mother. Taken in by kind neighbours, she forges a happy life, albeit one that has a sadness at its heart.

She has a good job, a lovely, supportive husband, two daughters, lots of friends, but nothing quite fills that hole.

When she finds an old space hopper box in the loft, it paves the way for her to return to her past, and to be with her mum, but as is usually the case with time travel, interfering with the past isn’t always a wise thing to do, and the consequences can be much more far reaching than you expect.

I did enjoy this. For a debut novel it’s very well-written, confident, well-paced, and absorbing in places, and the details of Faye’s past were so well done, really authentic.

That said, there were a few places where things dragged a little, and some of the time travel aspects didn’t really work for me. And I’m not sure I completely believed in the ending.

But certainly a good read, and I’d definitely read more by this author.

‘The Nanny State Made Me’ by Stuart Maconie #FridayReads #BookReview

It was the spirit of our finest hour, the backbone of our post-war greatness, and it promoted some of the boldest and most brilliant schemes this isle has ever produced: it was the Welfare State, and it made you and I. But now it’s under threat, and we need to save it.

In this timely and provocative book, Stuart Maconie tells Britain’s Welfare State story through his own history of growing up as a northern working class boy. What was so bad about properly funded hospitals, decent working conditions and affordable houses? And what was so wrong about student grants, free eye tests and council houses? And where did it all go so wrong? Stuart looks toward Britain’s future, making an emotional case for believing in more than profit and loss; and championing a just, fairer society.

Last week I reviewed Cash Carraway’s book about her struggle to build a life for herself and her daughter under the current social system in this country. It felt timely then to read this book straight after – a book that praises that once great system, when the much maligned ‘nanny’ state looked after the people of this country and helped those who needed help.

I am slightly younger than Maconie, but I very much recognised the world he described – albeit that I lived further south, first in London and then in an estate in a new town, built to cater for the London overspill. Like Maconie’s estate, the estate we lived in had been planned to put open spaces at its heart – terraces of houses not in rows but in squares around a green area, and we had a toilet downstairs! 

I had a free education,  free library, free care from the NHS, and when I when to university I had a grant – a grant that didn’t need to be paid back – ever.

Things weren’t perfect. There was snobbery. There was still need. But it was a damn sight better than now.

Maconie’s book then, is a love letter of sorts to those institutions that meant so much to those of us who were working class – the swimming pools, the parks, the libraries (especially the libraries), the completely free education. And it’s also a warning that we are letting it all slip away. That we are letting this false narrative of scroungers, of benefit cheats, of people swanning up to food banks in Range Rovers (yes, I have been told this I by someone I know – she firmly believes it) to allow us to turn our back on a system that, although not perfect, was genuinely a safety net, was genuinely a way out for many of us.

Maconie writes with wit, with warmth, with intelligence. The book isn’t perfect though. In a section about how the privately educated have taken over the music industry, with the majority of bands in this country formed of ex-public schoolboys, Maconie wonders where are the John Lennons, the Jarvis Cockers, the Johnny Marrs? In doing so he completely overlooks grime – a whole genre of working class and independent music.

I also found his defence of the BBC a little hard to swallow, and a little disappointing too.

That said, however, this is a really important book. The ‘nanny’ state is not a terrible, interfering, wasteful behemoth that needs continuous overhauling – it is a lifeline for many that definitely needs proper funding (might help if the rich paid their taxes). We need those Sure Start Centres, those public libraries, the school playing fields, the public swimming pools. And we most certainly need free university level education. I couldn’t have done without these things. I wish the generations after me had had the benefit of them too. 

A much-needed warning, well-written, very readable, and an important book, especially as we head into the uncertainty of 2022.

‘Skint Estate’ by Cash Carraway #BookReview #FridayReads

I’m a scrounger, a liar, a hypocrite, a stain on society with no basic morals – or so they say. After all, what else do you call a working-class single mum in temporary accommodation?

Skint Estate is the darkly funny debut memoir from Cash Carraway, a scream against austerity that rises full of rage in a landscape of sink estates, police cells, refuges and peepshows.
A voice that must be heard.

Sometimes, when there’s an article posted on Twitter about foodbanks, or people having to choose whether to heat their homes or eat, I read the comments and wonder what’s wrong with people. I can guarantee that someone will say something about flat screen TVs (all TVs have flat screens), or mobile phones (you have to have internet access to apply for jobs, and access information and services relating to universal benefit, and a mobile is often the cheapest way) or alcohol and cigarettes, the lottery or scratch cards (no evidence that people in poverty buy these disproportionatly, and even if they do, well, god forbid the poor should have any pleasure, just sit on the floor and stare at the wall). Anyway, the ignorance, smugness, and lack of compassion always makes me furious. These people should read this book.

Cash Carraway tells it exactly like it is, with an intelligence and wit that makes reading this book bearable. Because without her skill as a writer, it would be unremittingly depressing. Which a life in poverty in the UK undoubtedly is.

The frustration of moving from temporary home to temporary home, of trying to find work that fits in with childcare, the sheer exhaustion of just trying to keep your head above water, the author relates these things with an honesty that is raw and brave, and with a scathing humour and a justifiable anger. 

I’m currently reading ‘The Nanny State Made Me’ by Stuart Maconie, partly a celebration of the funded NHS, libraries, education, that my generation enjoyed and benefitted from. Had these things still been available, rather than completely decimated by recent policies, you can’t help thinking that Cash Carraway would have had a much better chance in life, that she would have had access to resources, to care, that would have set her on her path earlier, that she wouldn’t have had to have gone through what she has gone through, and write about it, to be a successful writer and journalist. 

I come from a working class background, and I know first-hand the benefits of libraries, and student grants, and access to education. I have also had first-hand experience of the NHS providing lifesaving care for my child – goodness knows what would have happened without it. Reading of experiences like Cash Carraway’s and reading the way people like her are demonised and blamed for society’s ills really brings home just how much in danger we are of losing these things for good. I also wonder how much my life may have been like hers had I been born twenty or thirty years ago rather than fifty-odd years ago.

It’s not just a blessing for the author that her writing and her talent has been recognised, it’s a blessing for the rest of us – her work is so important, and deserves to be shared. She’s a real talent, and I do hope she’ll write more of her experiences. 

‘Love Lives Here’ by Amanda Jette Knox #BookReview #FridayReads

All Amanda Jetté Knox ever wanted was to enjoy a stable life. She never knew her biological father, and while her mother and stepfather were loving parents, the situation was sometimes chaotic. At school, she was bullied mercilessly, and at the age of fourteen, she entered a counselling program for alcohol addiction and was successful. 

While still a teenager, she met the love of her life. They were wed at 20, and the first of three children followed shortly. Jetté Knox finally had the stability she craved–or so it seemed. Their middle child struggled with depression and avoided school. The author was unprepared when the child she knew as her son came out as transgender at the age of eleven. Shocked, but knowing how important it was to support her daughter, Jetté Knox became an ardent advocate for trans rights.

But the story wasn’t over. For many years, the author had coped with her spouse’s moodiness, but that chronic unhappiness was taking a toll on their marriage. A little over a year after their child came out, her partner also came out as transgender. Knowing better than most what would lie ahead, Jetté Knox searched for positive examples of marriages surviving transition. When she found no role models, she determined that her family would become one. 

The shift was challenging, but slowly the family members noticed that they were becoming happier and more united. Told with remarkable candour and humour, and full of insight into the challenges faced by trans people, Love Lives Here is a beautiful story of transition, frustration, support, acceptance, and, of course, love
.

I started following Amanda Jette Knox a couple of years ago on Twitter – admiring the grace patience and humour she showed when dealing with sometimes horrific abuse directed not only at her, but also at her children. 

A brief glance through Twitter most days of the week and you’ll see some of the horrible things transgender people have said to them – things I’m sure people wouldn’t be brave enough to say to their faces. There’s so much misinformation out there about transgender people and transitioning. I would really encourage everyone to read this wonderful book to hear the truth about what transitioning actually entails from a family that actually knows.

The book is honest, brave, sometimes heart-breaking, ultimately uplifting. The author reveals a great deal about herself, her fears, her hopes, and is honest about mistakes she’s made. And it’s all told in a way that makes you feel as though you’re sitting down with her for a chat over coffee – the warmth and humour – and the love – comes through so clearly.

I remember Section 28 in the late eighties, and the misery it caused. I remember the homophobia of those times and it’s dreadful to hear the same old tropes and lies now being used against transgender people. It’s so depressing. It’s so important that transgender voices are heard, that the real people going through this are listened to and reading this book certainly is a great way to do that.

Incredibly important, well-written, honest and authentic, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

‘Do Not Disturb’ by Claire Douglas #FridayReads #BookReview

do not disturb

Hive     Waterstones

Could your dream home be your worst nightmare?

After what happened in London, Kirsty needs a fresh start with her family. 
And running a guesthouse in the Welsh mountains sounds idyllic.

But then their first guest arrives.
Selena is the last person Kirsty wants to see.
It’s 17 years since she tore everything apart.

Why has she chosen now to walk back into Kirsty’s life?
Is Selena running from something too?
Or is there an even darker reason for her visit?

Because Kirsty knows that once you invite trouble into your home, it can be murder getting rid of it . . . 

Having just moved from the south east of England to a small village in West Wales, I was intrigued to read this book.

It’s a great idea, with lots of different strands that are really interesting and that do keep you turning the pages to see what’s at the bottom of all these weird events.

I liked Kirsty and sympathised with her, particularly the situation she was in with her mum, grateful for the help, but irritated by her behaviour, and not able to say anything because of the gratitude! A horrible situation to be in.

But – there were so many strands here that it didn’t feel as if enough time was given to any of them. There was such a lot that could have made this into a much more satisfying novel, particularly the story around Selena and Ruby, and the resentment Kirsty felt towards her husband.

One of the ‘red herrings’ was dealt with so quickly and with no real depth whatsoever which was hugely disappointing.

And, as someone who has moved to Wales, I found the idea of the locals resenting the ‘incomers’ a bit of a tired old stereotype.

The ending too felt a bit odd and definitely needed to be developed further. The implications of the ending are absolutely huge and could be so interesting. But again, there was no real depth.

A real shame, because this could have been so good. There was a lot I really liked, but I wish it had been better.

three and a half stars

New Year, New Goals and a Special Offer #writing #editing #NewYear

resolution

I’ve taken a break from social media over the holidays because it can be a huge distraction, and I really wanted to enjoy some family time. But the house is now empty, much quieter and very tidy!

A new year, of course, is a time for reflection, and for looking forward. I love making plans, and the feeling of having a fresh start, and I’m looking forward to the year ahead.

This year I am determined to get through my huge TBR list – I really need to read at least one book a week, and post a review a week on the blog. Please do hold me to account if I fail to do so – I sometimes need a kick up the bum!

book pile

This is pretty much what my TBR list looks like

I also desperately need to get back to writing. I’m setting aside a day a week this year to do so.

And now I’m fifty I recognise the need to really stay fit and healthy, so I’m going back to running. Luckily I have a husband who is a keen runner and he’s also great at motivating me, as well as putting up with me swearing at him when he makes me go out even when it’s pouring with rain (which is every day in Wales).

To keep me motivated I’m going to sign up for a 10K – I last did one ten years ago (gulp!) and it felt wonderful when it was done. My daughter also wants to do a ‘Tough Mudder’ and I’m definitely considering that.

And of course I want to continue editing – working with wonderful clients. I love my job and one of the shelves in my bookcase is filled with books I’ve edited. It makes me hugely proud to see them and I hope to add many more this year.

To celebrate the New Year and a new decade, I’m offering a 10% discount on any bookings placed before the end of January for February and March. Drop me an email at alisonewilliams@sky.com and I’ll get straight back to you.

You can find out about my editing services here, and read testimonials from very happy clients here.

Wishing all my clients, old and new, and all my lovely blogging and writing friends a very happy and successful New Year!

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