#fridayreads

‘The Art of Falling’ by Danielle McLaughlin #BookReview #FridayReads

Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibit for one of Ireland’s most beloved and enigmatic artists, the late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: a chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her, and at work, an odd woman comes forward claiming to be the true creator of Robert Locke’s most famous work, The Chalk Sculpture.

As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she must decide whether she can continue to live a lie – or whether she’s ready to face the consequences once everything is out in the open. In this gripping debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that rule us.

This is quite a slow-paced novel, almost gentle in its composition, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an absorbing read. It really is.

Nessa is a well-drawn main character, and it’s a relief to read about a middle-aged woman who has a lot of the faults and worries and insecurities that most of us do. She’s at a point in her life when things should be going smoothly – her career is established, her marriage has survived an affair, her daughter is growing up, she lives in a beautiful house – but it doesn’t take much for it all too start falling apart.

The little details of ordinary life really add something to the narrative. It makes it all feel so real, so authentic. And Nessa isn’t some sugar-coated super woman. She has her faults, can be childish and petty, selfish and shallow. But aren’t we all, sometimes?

It’s skillfully written, every word well-chosen. It’s one of those books that forces you to slow down, to read carefully, to enjoy every page.

My only gripe was that I did feel that Nessa let her husband off the hook rather too lightly, and I did feel we could have known a bit more about him, and his motivations.

But this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

‘Ash Tuesday’ by Ariadne Blayde #RBRT #FridayReads

I read ‘Ash Tuesday’ for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team.

In New Orleans, the dead talk and the living listen. 

Giving ghost tours on the decaying streets of the French Quarter isn’t exactly a high-profile career, but the guides at Spirits of Yore Haunted Tours are too strange and troubled to do anything else. They call themselves Quarter Rats, a group of outcasts and dreamers and goths who gather in hole-in-the-wall bars to bicker, spin yarns, and search for belonging in the wee hours of the night after the tourists have staggered home. 

Through the ghost stories they tell, their own haunted lives come into focus. Like the city they call home, these tour guides are messy with contradiction: they suffer joyfully, live morbidly, and sin to find salvation. 

Weaving together real New Orleans folklore with the lives of eleven unforgettably vibrant characters, Ash Tuesday is a love letter to America’s last true bohemia and the people, both dead and living, who keep its heart beating. With her debut, Blayde has carved out a deep and uber-readable interpretation of what it means to live, love, and grieve in New Orleans.

“There’s something about New Orleans. Maybe you can trace it to Latin America or the Caribbean or maybe not, maybe you can’t define it at all. The divine? The diabolical? I don’t know what to call it. But there’s magic, here.” 

New Orleans has a rich and bloody history, so it’s hardly surprising that its streets and buildings should be full of ghosts. And the author of ‘Ash Tuesday’ has found a wonderful way of telling those stories, along with the stories of an eclectic cast of characters, the ghost tour guides of Spirits of Yore.

It is Mardi Gras, and the city is full of tourists. We follow each of the guides as they give their tours, and then stay with them, learning about their lives, their struggles, their hopes, loves, dreams and pasts. And watching over it all is Kat, whose story is saved for the bittersweet ending.

This is one of the most beautifully crafted books I’ve read, every page, every paragraph a pleasure to read. I didn’t know much about New Orleans, but now I feel as though I know it well, and can see it so clearly from the author’s evocative descriptions – descriptions that never interfere with the narrative but provide a clear sense of time and place, conveying the atmosphere of chilly, eerie nights and bright carnival parades with equal skill.

The characters are brought to life with love and honesty. I adored Veda, and lovely Max, and wished so much for the other guides to understand Angela a bit more. The interactions between them all felt so real.

This is a book that will appeal not just to those who enjoy a good ghost story (although there are plenty of those), or those who are interested in history or in New Orleans. Because this is a novel that is fundamentally about people, their faults and their flaws, their mistakes and their victories, their love (and sometimes their hatred) for each other, and the ways in which we can let the past, and the people in the past, break us, or we can find our own ways forward, with people who love us for who we are.

A wonderful book.

‘The Assistant’ by S.K. Tremayne #BookReview #FridayReads

She watches you constantly.
Newly divorced Jo is delighted to move into her best friend’s spare room almost rent-free. The high-tech luxury Camden flat is managed by a meticulous Home Assistant, called Electra, that takes care of the heating, the lights – and sometimes Jo even turns to her for company.
 
She knows all your secrets.
Until, late one night, Electra says one sentence that rips Jo’s fragile world in two: ‘I know what you did.’ And Jo is horrified. Because in her past she did do something terrible. Something unforgivable.
 
Now she wants to destroy you.
Only two other people in the whole world know Jo’s secret. And they would never tell anyone. Would they? As a fierce winter brings London to a standstill, Jo begins to understand that the Assistant on the shelf doesn’t just want to control Jo; it wants to destroy her.

This is such an excellent premise for a novel. How reliant we have all become on technology, when most of us don’t really understand it or what we’re signing up for. The idea that all those Alexas could turn on us has so much potential.

This has all the elements necessary for a real page-turner. And there are parts of it that work really well. The terror that Jo begins to feel builds and builds and there is real tension. Her frustration and her helplessness in the face of what the Electra’s are able to do to her work, her reputation, her family, her life comes across clearly.

However, there is too much here that just doesn’t feel realistic. Jo isn’t easy to like, and it’s hard to understand why everyone else is so enamoured of her (to the extent that one friend lets her live rent free in their flat, and her newly ex-husband drops his wife and new baby to help her out). The way she treats her mum is awful. And I was quite disappointed in the ending.

So lots of promise that didn’t quite hit the mark for me, but worth a read.

‘The Liar’s Dictionary’ by Eley Williams #Fridayreads #BookReview

Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary is riddled with fictitious entries known as mountweazels penned by Peter Winceworth, a man wishing to make his lasting mark back in 1899. It’s up to young intern Mallory to uncover these mountweazels before the dictionary can be digitised for modern readers.

Lost in Winceworth’s imagination – a world full of meaningless words – will Mallory finally discover the secret to living a meaningful life?

There was a great deal that I really liked about this book. It is really funny and clever in places, and I loved Mallory, the main character.

I rather liked the idea of the job she had – to find fictitious words in Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Words that, as we find out through flashbacks, have been placed there by lexicographer Peter Winceworth (never was a name more apt) in 1899 – a man frustrated by his work, his workmates and the world, and who wishes to make a mark on that world.

The rogue words are really good fun, and the novel is charming, unusual, witty and clever. However, sometimes the definitions go a little too far and do bog the narrative down a bit.

That said, this is an entertaining and engaging novel.

‘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.

‘Here Is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan #bookreview #fridayreads

For three years, Ana has been consumed by an affair with Connor, a client at her law firm. Their love has been consigned to hotel rooms and dark corners of pubs, their relationship kept hidden from the world. So the morning that Ana’s company receives a call to say that Connor is dead, her secret grief has nowhere to go. Desperate for an outlet, Ana seeks out the shadowy figure who has always stood just beyond her reach – Connor’s wife Rebecca…

This story begins at the end of an affair – brought short by the sudden death of Connor. It follows Ana’s memories of the affair alongside the way she copes (or doesn’t) with the situation.

The story is told in verse form, which makes every word, every line, every scene compacted into what is really important. Rather than making things feel underdeveloped, the author’s skill means that you learn so much about each character, each situation, in a few well-chosen words and situations.

Ana isn’t very nice. She’s selfish, and self-absorbed. But she’s also deeply unhappy, and the narrative doesn’t try to excuse her, or her behaviour, it simply shows us what she is like, what she does, and how that affects those around her.

The narrative is packed full of emotion – love, hate, jealousy, guilt, but it never feels overdone, just realistic, considering the characters and the situation.

It’s a fairly short read, but no less a whole story – I read it in a couple of days which is unusual for me at the moment as I have so much else to do! So that’s a testament to how much I enjoyed it.

Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell #FridayReads #BookReview

What does it mean to be on the wrong side of history?

Svenja O’Donnell’s beautiful, aloof grandmother Inge never spoke about the past. All her family knew was that she had grown up in a city that no longer exists on any map: Königsberg in East Prussia, a footnote in history, a place that almost no one has heard of today. But when Svenja impulsively visits this windswept Baltic city, something unlocks in Inge and, finally, she begins to tell her story.

It begins in the secret jazz bars of Hitler’s Berlin. It is a story of passionate first love, betrayal, terror, flight, starvation and violence. As Svenja teases out the threads of her grandmother’s life, retracing her steps all over Europe, she realises that there is suffering here on a scale that she had never dreamt of. And finally, she uncovers a desperately tragic secret that her grandmother has been keeping for sixty years.

Inge’s War listens to the voices that are often missing from our historical narrative – those of women caught up on the wrong side of history. It is a book about memory and heritage that interrogates the legacy passed down by those who survive. It also poses the questions: who do we allow to tell their story? What do we mean by family? And what will we do in order to survive?

I recently watched The Final Account – over the course of more than a decade, the documentary film-maker Luke Holland collected interviews with surviving witnesses and participants of Hitler’s Third Reich. These were people who were there. Soldiers in the army, members of the SS, women who worked in the offices of the concentration camps. Those who lived nearby. It is a programme that was hard to watch. One man in particular was still proud of what he’d done. One woman, who worked in an office in a camp, said it was nothing to do with her. She said the treatment of the Jewish people horrified her. Then she laughed as she recalled hiding her boyfriend – a guard at the camp – when the allies came. There were those, of course, who were horribly ashamed, who took their share of the responsibility. 

A few years ago we visited Munich – a wonderful place, wonderful people, friendly, welcoming, beautiful. On our final day there we visited Dachau, and suddenly things weren’t so wonderful. What got to me most was that the camp was there for all to see. Everyone. No one could have not known. 

Of course we all hope that we would stand up to fascists. That we wouldn’t turn a blind eye, or worse, be involved. But documentaries like The Final Account, and the proof of places like Dachau niggle away – would we really be any different? Would we be brave enough to say no? 

Inge’s War, for me, is another story that poses this question. 

The writer’s grandmother, Inge, grew up in East Prussia, an area that was, in a lot of ways, removed from what was happening in the rest of Germany. On the whole, people just carried on with their lives, at least at first. Inge’s parents disapproved of Hitler, but they kept their heads down, not really believing that anything bad would happen. So removed were they, that they allowed Inge to move to Berlin in 1940, at the age of fifteen.

Here, Inge met Wolfgang, a young man who had avoided being called up. When he finally had to go to war, Inge discovered she was pregnant. He promised to stand by her, but his father forbade it, and feeling betrayed, Inge returned home.

The story then follows Inge and her parents, as the war does find them, and they too have to flee. What happens to Inge from them on makes for a dark tale, and the author comes to understand her stern, guarded, taciturn grandmother.

It’s unusual to read about German refugees, the terror they felt, caught between the Nazis and the Russians at the end of the war. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for them, for women like Inge, who were collateral damage in all of this. And when you read about atrocities like the Nemmesdorf massacre, the only thing you can feel is horror and disgust. But when you think about what happened to Jewish people, the Romani people, LGBT people, the disabled, and all the other groups targeted by the Nazis, it’s hard to feel as much sympathy for people fleeing who voted for Hitler, who may have watched their Jewish neighbours being taken away. Who turned a blind eye at the trains full of human beings. And the author recognises this, feels this conflict herself. But she asks the questions too of what would we, the readers, have done? Can we honestly say we would have intervened, spoken up, acted? 

The research here is, of course, impeccable, and the writing so accomplished. Accessible without dumbing down, thoughtful, respectful, and, unsurprisingly given the author’s relationship to Inge, completely genuine and authentic. This is, without doubt, an important book. 

Whole-heartedly recommended (as is The Final Account).

‘One Split Second’ by Caroline Bond #BookReview #FridayReads

One split second … the moment that changed their lives forever.

When a car carrying five friends home from a party crashes into a wall, the consequences are devastating – not just for the young people directly involved, but also for their families and the wider community.

No one escapes unscathed, but some are more deeply scarred than others. Those affected are left to question who was to blame for the accident, and what price they will pay.

This moving story of an accident and its aftermath explores our understanding of love and loyalty, grief and forgiveness.

As a parent of young adults, I completely understand the premise at the heart of this book. Although I know my children are sensible, I hate the thought of them driving, more because of other drivers out there.

So the idea here is a really good one, with a lot of potential, and the opening scene is intriguing and so well-written, so moving. It really makes you want to read on. 

There are some interesting characters here too, with some well thought-out back stories, and the relationships between them work very well.

But for me, all that potential just didn’t lead anywhere. There was nothing particularly unusual or surprising about what had happened, why it had happened, or the consequences. It all felt a little flat, unfortunately.

‘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. 

‘Dear Edward’ by Ann Napolitano #BookReview #FridayReads

A transcendent coming-of-age story about the ways a broken heart learns to love again.

One summer morning, a flight takes off from New York to Los Angeles: there are 192 people aboard. When the plane suddenly crashes, twelve-year-old Edward Adler is the sole survivor.

In the aftermath, Edward struggles to make sense of his grief, sudden fame and find his place in a world without his family. But then Edward and his neighbour Shay make a startling discovery; hidden in his uncle’s garage are letters from the relatives of other passengers – all addressed him.

Following the passengers’ final hours and Edward’s unique coming-of-age, Dear Edward asks one of life’s most profound questions:

What does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live?

I used to love flying – I even flew to Singapore by myself at the tender age of nineteen. I didn’t give safety or plane crashes a second thought. Then once I had children, it began to really bother me and I’m not sure why. Now, I really, really don’t like it and have to take Valium before a flight.

So a book centred around a plane crash may not have been the most sensible choice, but this was a really unusual and thought-provoking read, full of emotion, without being sentimental, and a really sensitive and intriguing take on a very unusual situation.

Edward is lovely, really sympathetically portrayed, his awkwardness, his confusion, his guilt, his grief, all so well-written. I really wanted him to find a sense of peace, contentment, and happiness.

The reactions of those around him, family, friends, strangers, is an interesting commentary on how we often feel entitled to bits of a person’s life, even if we don’t know them. For me, the interactions with the families of those who died in the crash were a highlight of the book.

My only niggle was that I really didn’t warm to Shay at all. Their friendship didn’t feel authentic to me. Otherwise  a lovely book, beautifully-written, and intriguing.

Hasn’t made me feel any better about flying though!